Maine’s history is long and varied, but perhaps its greatest impact on the nation was its implementation of The Maine Law. Spearheaded by former Portland Mayor Neal S. Dow in 1851, The Maine Law banned the sale of alcohol in the state, and inspired the decades long movement for a nation-wide ban on the sale of alcohol, culminating in the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act.
Almost a century later, we know that Prohibition failed. While lawmakers were able to stop the legal sale of alcohol, they ended up creating a far worse black market for alcoholic products that was unsafe, violent and corrupt. Ultimately, the American people realized that if a product is in high demand, no amount of laws can stop it from getting into the hands of consumers, and the nation repealed Prohibition only 13 years after it went into effect.
Politicians, however, have been much slower in learning this lesson. And now in Portland, the birthplace of Prohibition, petty lawmakers still believe that banning the sale of a product will keep it out of people’s hands.
In the past few weeks, Portland’s Health & Human Services Committee has been pushing a proposal to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21. The council believes that such an ordinance would cut off the supply of cigarettes to Portlanders in their late teens. It seems, however, that Portland’s city council never learned the lesson of Prohibition. What the 18th Amendment taught us is that it is near impossible to cut off the supply of a product that is in high demand. People found ways to circumvent Prohibition through outright bribery, bootlegging or such innovative methods as bathtub gin. Now, I don’t expect anything so cartoonish as Portland teens growing and rolling their own tobacco or bribing city council members to turn a blind eye. I’m simply saying that markets, uh… find a way.
And by that I mean, if Portland teens want to smoke cigarettes, they’ll find a way to get them. Perhaps they’ll take the bus to Westbrook or South Portland to buy a few packs there. After all, Portland isn’t going to ban the smoking of cigarettes, only the sale within city limits. So instead of going to the local variety store of gas stations, Portland teens will be walking, biking, busing or driving miles away from home to get their fix. Is that really safer?
Of course, not all Portland teens will have the time or means to travel that far to buy cigarettes. It won’t take long, however, for some enterprising individuals to start buying cigarettes in bulk in South Portland, bringing them to Portland, and then sell them under the table to people at a premium. Now the teens that the City Council purports to be protecting are buying cigarettes on the streets or traveling miles away from home just to smoke a cigarette. And that’s how you create a black market.
Cigarette use among youth has been declining for years. So in many ways, this ordinance is attempting to fix a problem that is largely fixing itself. And e-cigarettes. which are much less harmful than traditional cigarettes, appear to be more popular among young people than traditional cigarettes, further lowering the harmful effects of smoking on that demographic. Perhaps, not surprisingly, there’s not much evidence that raising the legal age to purchase tobacco reduces tobacco use in the targeted age group.
Would raising the minimum legal age to buy tobacco make it more difficult to get a cigarette? Absolutely. But the lesson of the Prohibition era is that people are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to get the products that they want. Before enshrining their paternalistic demands on Portland teens, perhaps the City Council should take a few minutes to consider the lesson of Prohibition. After all, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.